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Drama without the drama


Kiwi-based Chasing Time Productions tell Claudia Civinini how they created an exciting and useful television series for English language teachers.

Chasing Time Productions wanted to create a TV drama you can use in your classroom, with characters that don’t speak at 1,000 words per minute and don’t suddenly drop a perfectly articulated swearword in front of your fiftheen year olds.

After collecting some international awards with their short movies, Scott Granville and Ben Woollen saw a gap in the market for quality dramatic narrative for EL classrooms.

They decided to bring in Jonathon Ryan, an applied linguistics PhD with a penchant for pragmatics and conversation analysis. He graded and benchmarked content and developed teaching and material to match every episode.

Fortune is a six-episode drama for English language learners about private detective Jimmy Fortune investigating the disappearance of his ex-wife Jenny.
The Gazette spoke to Granville and Ryan about what Fortune can offer to language teachers.

How did the idea come along?
‘We started Chasing Time in 2008’, explained Granville. ‘I had been in language education for the best part of a decade and always found it slightly disconcerting that there was no quality dramatic narrative for English language learners.

We were also looking at ways to reach a different audience, so we thought: “how do we bring language education into film making?”’

‘We wanted first of all to create an engaging series with characters that our audience would feel connected to. Then, we stepped back and thought: “within these episodes, what can we focus on for language learners? How do we teach learners and give teachers some materials to work with?”’

The web-series is offered in two versions: blue, for elementary-level learners, and gold, for intermediate level. How did you diversify and benchmark the content?

‘The series’ linguistic features are benchmarked against the CEFR [Common European Framework for Languages], because it’s something that’s established and recognisable for teachers and can bring us trust from our audience – it’s also a selling point for us, to be honest’, said Granville.

‘I wrote the six episodes and realised that it would be the dialogue that would need to be focused on for the linguistics features. Blue and gold follow the same narrative, but we chose specific scenes in each episode and shot them twice, once with an A2-level dialogue and another time with a B2-level dialogue.

Also, the teaching and learning material and the language focus is different across the two levels.’

‘We looked at ways in which the script could be simplified, in reference to the syllabus for the A2 and B2 levels of the CEFR’, explained Ryan. ‘We didn’t have time to trial the first series with learners, but we are planning to trial season two.

However, we have a team of 25 teachers in different countries across the world who are testing these materials in their classroom and we are getting their feedback.’

How can teachers use the web-series in the classroom?
‘The ideal way in my opinion would be one episode a week – there are probably three hours of teaching materials per episode. However, we wanted it to be flexible, so there is no part of the lesson that is indispensable and if a part of the teaching or learning material can’t be used it can be skipped,’ explained Ryan.

What is the main feature of the teaching material?
‘There is one particular area that deals with functional interactions, and it’s for classroom teachers – not for independent learners’, explained Ryan.

‘This deals with, for example, how people answer the phone or order coffee in real life, which is different from what we see on TV.’ ‘We wanted Fortune to be a real film, but we also wanted to be able to teach how certain interactions happen in real life.

So we shot a whole series of supplementary videos and provided other material, based on the work on conversation analysis that has been done by researchers like Jean Wong and Emanuel Schegloff, for teachers that want to show that contrast.’

What’s on the cards for the future?
‘We are developing an additional season of Fortune for A2 and B2 levels.

The majority of students fit into those categories – but we are investigating C1 as an option,’ says Granville.

And talking about the future, are Jenny and Jimmy getting back together in series two?
‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves!’ said Granville. And then he asked: ‘Do you think they should get back together?’